Upbeat start to union congress

Cape Town - It was a decidedly upbeat opening for the fourth world congress in Cape Town of UNI Global Union on Sunday. 

Some 2 000 delegates from around the world gathered in the cavernous Hall 2 of the convention centre to be entertained by traditional songs and drumming before Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel gave the introductory speech and declared the congress officially open. It is probably the largest every trade union gathering on the African continent.

This opening session that began late in the afternoon, included dramatic reconstructions of major events such as the 1973 strikes and the student uprising of 1976. Against a very polished three-screen backdrop, the choir from the Chris Hani secondary school in Khayelitsha provided a stunning musical interlude as part of a presentation of a potted and rather one-sided history of apartheid and the development of the modern trade union movement.  

Only the ANC featured, along with a passing reference to the SA Communist Party, with the Freedom Charter and Cosatu clearly promoted. This was perhaps understandable, given that much of the session was given over the a remembrance of Nelson Mandela and that Ahmed - Kathy - Kathrada was the major speaker at the event.

However, in his generally upbeat presentation, Patel promoted the bill of rights and the constitution. He also noted some of the problems, such as HIV/Aids denialism and the killings at Marikana.

But despite the professions of hope for the future, both from himself and other speakers, there was constant reference to the ongoing difficulties faced by working people the world over. It is this that is likely to be a major preoccupation over the three days of the congress.

But, as an opening session of a major conference, this was slick and professional, even if an hour late. Nothing - from the red lighting to the sound system and camera work projected onto three screens - could not be faultd.

Earlier in the afternoon, there was also a touch of irony as delegates queued to register. The South African Post Office (Sapo) proved to be a commercial success in the form of a stall featuring most prominently a Nelson Mandela souvenir brochure at R50. Competing with stalls advertising curios, beadwork and hair braiding, representatives of the embattled and almost bankrupt parastatal did a roaring trade.

Eric Aspeling, a Sapo branch manager, and Christo Jonck of the city’s main post office also had stamp postcards and a R250 book “reflecting South African History” in postage stamps for sale.

“Perhaps they’ll make enough to pay the wages next month,” quipped one South African delegate. Once the delegates had filed into the delayed opening session, the Sapo stall disappeared.


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